Coal protesters, firm still battle over song lyrics in suit

AP News
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Posted: Aug 05, 2015 6:54 PM

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The lyrics of a more than 40-year-old strip-mining protest song still amount to fighting words in Wyoming, where a lawsuit pits environmentalists against one of the nation's largest coal mining companies.

Lawyers for activists suing Peabody Energy Corp. and others quoted singer-songwriter John Prine's 1971 song "Paradise," which criticized the company's mining activities in Kentucky. It struck a sour chord with Peabody.

Activists Thomas Asprey and Leslie Glustrom asked a federal judge this week to deny the company's request to strip the lyrics from their lawsuit, noting that even U.S. Supreme Court opinions have quoted songs.

The Boulder, Colorado, activists claimed their civil rights were violated when they were arrested for protesting outside the company's 2013 shareholder meeting in the city of Gillette. Their lawyers kicked off their federal complaint by quoting the following verse:

"And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County

"Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?

"Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking

"Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away."

Lawyers for Peabody, which has been irritated by the song for decades, shot back with a lengthy brief asking U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl of Casper to strike the offending verse, saying it was inflammatory and irrelevant. The company also has denied the activists' claims.

The activists' lawyers emphasize that there's nothing inappropriate about livening up typically dull legal writing by quoting song lyrics. They pointed out that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts once dipped into Bob Dylan's songbook to illustrate a legal point, borrowing the quote, "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose" from the song "Like a Rolling Stone."

They also said Justice Antonin Scalia found what he was looking for in another Dylan song, quoting the title of his song, "The Times, They Are A-Changin'" in a legal opinion.

"I think Peabody's injuries are self-inflicted here," Darold Killmer, a Denver lawyer representing Asprey and Glustrom, said Wednesday. "They're saying that citing John Prine's lyrics is impugning them, but Peabody's the one that's publicizing it. They could have just ignored it and continued to fight the issues on the merits."

A spokesman for Prine said Wednesday that the musician was traveling in Ireland and not available for comment.

Cheyenne lawyer Bruce Salzburg, who is helping represent Peabody, declined to comment Wednesday. Efforts to get a statement from company officials weren't immediately successful.

Asprey and Glustrom claim in their lawsuit filed this spring that Peabody had moved its 2013 shareholders' meeting to the campus of Gillette College because of protests by mine workers at the company headquarters in St. Louis.

The pair allege that police at the college told them they could only display a banner proclaiming "Peabody Abandons Miners" in a fenced area far from the building where the shareholders' meeting took place.

They claim a campus police officer arrested them after they unfurled the banner in front of the building to allow some miners to take a photo. Police and the college have also denied violating Asprey's and Glustrom's civil rights.